This phone interview was conducted while parked at nature preserve near my home on Long Island. It’s a favorite place of mine where I often go to close my eyes and just melt for a while into the sun speckled shade and chirping of resident finches. What a perfect setting to speak to David Lanz in! On any given day, I might be parked here listening and relaxing to Skyline Firedance, one of my favorite albums by David. Since the 1970’s, David Lanz has been one of the most visible and influential artists in the ever evolving genre known as “New Age”. Yet, his body of work clearly transcends this limited classification. Composer, songwriter, collaborator, soloist, teacher, coach and multi instrumentalist, David Lanz works across many forms of music shaping what has to be one of the most prolific careers in the industry. We found his insights fascinating and inspiring and we present it here for your enjoyment!
LBFH: Can you describe how growing up in the Pacific Northwest influenced your love of music?
DL: Well, more specific to the question – the environment really was musical because both my Mother and Grandmother played the piano, so I was in that environment a lot as a young kid. I was very curious about music and started lessons at around 4 1/2 years old. I showed an interest and I was really keen on it because my mom used to play boogie-woogie on the piano (laughs). That of course got me very excited. I grew up with a young mom, so she was listening to a lot of pop music at the time like Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole and whatever top 40 was around. More specific to the Northwest, just prior to the explosion that happened before the Beatles came around, I grew up listening to a lot of Northwest rock musicians who, back in the day, focused on instrumental music. There was groups like The Wailers and The Viceroys, The Sonics, I’m not even sure if you know who that is..
LBFH – Oh, sure!
DL: I was actually too young to go see any of these groups, but by the time I was 13 and 14 years old, I had already met friends and we had started a little band. We were attempting to play this music as best we could. It’s funny because I kind of started as an instrumentalist but then when The Beatles happened there was more of a focus on everyone singing and writing music more. The British invasion was very popular in the Northwest. A lot of groups like The Kinks used to point to groups like The Sonics and the Wailers. The Beatles even talked about groups like the wailers. So there was a kind of cross over between the British and grunge, well we didn’t call it grunge back then it was more like that garage bandsound that was pretty popular in the Northwest. So I grew up in that environment and by the time I was 16 I had gone through a couple of different bands. One of them was called The Town Criers; we were heavily influences at this point by the British and by Paul Revere and the raiders. In Seattle proper there was a big teen fair and they had a battle of the bands with over 300 bands. You know, it was kind of a hot bed for rock n roll. So my band entered and we came in with the top 10! We were a pretty good little group. I made my first record with those guys, back in ‘66. From there, the Northwest continued to be the cutting edge and everyone wanted to be cutting edge. So by late ‘66-’67, I had met people from San Francisco who had turned me on to bands that no one had heard of, yet. Bands like The Doors, Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish. So our band started playing psychedelic music before it became in fashion. But Seattle was kind of into that. We were like a mini San Francisco. I grew up as a young teenager trying to play progressive music and trying to get away from the simple 3 chord kinds of music, which was the bread and butter for most bands at that time. I guess that kind of answers your question.
Lbfh: Ok, so your working with bands now and your exploring “psychedelic music” and everything that goes along with that, but then there’s a shift from rock band sound to solo work?
DL: Yes, well let me fill in the gap a little. In my latter teens, I started steering away from rock. I was listening to McCoy Tyner and John Coltraneand Miles (Davis), so I was attempting to “ham-handedly” become a “Jazzer”. And then it was more acoustic. I was trying to go more in that style but at the same time I was listening to a lot of classical. I didn’t reallystudy classical, but I poured myself into listening to it. Then at the same time there was Ravi Shankar and all that other world influence. So all these things started to conspire and I stared listening to McCoy Tyner who played modally while listening to Indian music, which again is modal. All of a sudden, now were throwing chord changes out the window! Of course that’s what The Doors were doing and all of the psychedelic bands were doing. Now we’ve gone from a blues scale to beyond the pentatonic scaleand throwing in more chromatics and using more of the music scales that some of the eastern music used. So, I started to kind of take all that in. The solo stuff came in the ‘70’s. After running through a number of bands, you know, dance bands, funk bands, disco bands, just playing the pop music of the day and going on the road for years with them, I finally got to the point where I burned out. I was offered a job playing solo piano in a piano bar, which is something I said I would never do. This was in the early eighties. I did that for five years and during that time I was playing almost every night. I was being paid to practice, as I like to say. I started to slowly develop a solo piano style. I was dating at a woman at the time and she had me listen to a George Winston record. First of all, at first I didn’t like George. I think he’s pretty cool now. I was surprised (laughs) that someone was actually making a record that wasn’t, you know, like a Keith Jarrett solo, more technical thing. It was a simpler version of it. So I was inspired by that. Also at that time I was doing a lot of meditation, I was doing Yoga and studying about Eastern philosophies. I was studying a lot about Paramahansa Yogananda who started the Self-Realization Fellowship. He was also one of George Harrison’s mentors, at least aesthetically. So I was expanding out of my traditional American-Christian way of being brought up. Part of that was brought on by the Psychedelic era; you know having an open mind to meditation. The Beatles were talking about all of that and I was very much influenced by it. So my interest in Eastern philosophy and meditation and yoga made a shift in me, going into the solo realm. At first it was synthesizers. I wasn’t really interested in playing solo piano. I was listening to a late ‘70’s Steven Halpern album called, The Spectrum Suite. I used it as way to mellow out after doing yoga routines. I liked the mood that Steve’s music was creating, but I realized there was no form. I don’t know if you know the album?
LBFH: Yes, Sure!
DL: That album has been referred to as the forerunner to New Age music. At first the music was kind of formless. You didn’t want to excite people too much with the music; it was supposed to slow down your brain waves. So I started experimenting with playing around at different tempos, like 60 beats per minute which is the rhythm of the heart and no chord changes just keeping everything real modal in the left hand a-la Indian music and my right hand was just playing simple melodic things. I ended up doing my first album called Heartsounds. This was taking the chakras, which there are seven of, and outlining each one musically in a very simple way. Then I rounded it out with compositions that were a little more complex using more harmony and chords. That was in the early ‘80’s. Then shortly after that, I sent a copy of the tape to Narada. There were really only two labels at the time. I sent one to Windham Hill and one to Narada and the president of Narada got back to me within a week. I was looking for distribution, you know I was making my own cassettes and selling them out of the back seat of my car. He sent me a recording contract and said, “ Dave, we like your cassette Heartsounds and were starting a record label and we have two artists. We’d like you to be our third artist”. I was very excited. A record deal! (Laughs) In 1971, I had been signed to Mercury records. I was in a band called Brahman, very progressive original rock band out of Vancouver. So up until that time, I had been trying to get signed and doing all kinds of work. I even worked for my good friend Jeff Simmons, who was the Bass player for The Mothers of Invention. Jeff and I have a band right now, I’ll tell you a little more about that later. Anyway, Narada got a hold of me and I signed a contract with them in the early ‘80’s and put out Heartsounds. I had one meeting with the president who helped me get on track and to focus on my next album which was called,Nightfall. That was a more focused attempt at doing an album that was very serene and it had a calming mood throughout the whole album. So, that’s when I got started in the New Age Genre. And like you said, it really wasn’t called New Age back then; they called it “New Acoustic” music. You know, like solo piano music. It was later on in the ‘80’s when the major labels got involved. They’re the ones that tied the genre into the name for marketing purposes. They had a lot of different tittles to choose form I’m guessing. The genre of music that was very popular and starting to wane at that time was “New Wave”, you know, bands like The Police and The Cars. The “new wave” was on its way out, so they kind of saw the next thing, you know? So that’s how the name got stuck and they used it to market the music. Whether it was synthesizers or ensembles or acoustic guitar or spacey flute music, it all kind of got put under the same category. Am I talking too much? (Laughs).
LBFH: No! That was a good description! Going back to the second album, were you give guidance by the label or a specific direction?
DL: The first record I did by myself and with my musical partner at the time who was Paul Speer. Paul and I had been doing work for hire, you know like film music? Paul and I were also both working on our own solo music independently. Paul got a record deal with a small company in San Francisco and I got one with Narada. To answer your question though, I sat with the then president of Narada and I played him what was going to be my second album. It had some of the music that ended up on the album Nightfall. He said, “I really like certain pieces, they’re really beautiful. Why don’t you go back and write a few more pieces and keep it all in that kind of same mood so that when you listen to the album you don’t break the spell and you keep people in the same space?” I thought that was pretty cool! I likened it to a speech where if you start hopping around to a lot of different subjects, you lose your audience. A lot of musicians will do that. You put on a record and it will have a heavy rock feel and then it will move into a ballad and then they’ll move into a country thing or a reggae thing to show off their versatility. But I think the average listener likes to put on a record and get a certain kind of vibe throughout. So I did get input at first, and very valuable I think. You know, I can work in many different areas of music. It gave me focus and some guidelines and parameters. It helped me to focus and what I ended up creating which was Nightfall. It became very popular and was regarded as one of the better examples from that era of the “spiritual/romantic” new age piano.
LBFH: So there’s a synergy between the artists and the record labels, where both had come together to form this new genre?
DL: There wasn’t that many labels at the time. There were some labels in Japan and Europe that were putting out similar music but mostly synthesizer music like Kitaro. There was ECM (label) but they were more of a Jazz label. So then when Windham Hill and Narada came around, they attempted to focus more on the artists. At times it was a little more confining. There would be some ensemble music that they would put their eyebrows up at and say that it didn’t really fit. In fact, at one point with my most successful album Cristofori’s Dream, I had this idea to do a cover of Procol Harum’s, Whiter Shade Of Pale, which is still loved to this day by people who considered it to be one of the better covers. I gotMatthew Fisher from Brooklyn to be part of that and got it past the A&R department, but then when the president heard of it he said that it wasn’t “befitting’ of a new age musician to do a psychedelic rock song. He got out voted, thank god (laughs). It wound up being a big hit. In a way, it helped that album to explode and get on the radio and then eventually sales went Gold.
LBFH: Isn’t The President is supposed to be the visionary one?
Well, he was to a point. When things started to get more commercial, I was actually leading the pack there. I was the first one that started to have that kind of commercial success and to be more out into the main stream. We were starting to break away from selling records in new age book stores and crystal shops. At that same time, MCA which I think now isUniversal Entertainment, became partners with Narada. This is what happened with all the big new age labels back then, the major labels all became partnered. Windham Hill got into bed with Sony. I can’t remember all of the pairings at the time. But that’s what happened and then everything really started to explode because we now had major distribution in all of the record chains, (laughs) well back then when there used to be record stores. You know, Tower Records and Sam Goody’s,Music Land, you know there were quite a few and then there was all the regional chains. So, I ended up spending a lot of time out on the road going to all these record conventions and hob knobbing with the people who ran the stores. Then doing the R&R conventions, you know radio and records, hob knobbing with the people who were playing the records. I was in a good position because of my personality and the success I was having. They threw me out there and I was like the spokesperson for the label. things were really starting to blossom up!
LBFH: You have an impressive list of releases on your site. Some of the titles are very interesting and jump out right away. One that struck me was Re-imagining the Beatles. How did the idea for that come about?
DL: It started with my friend Gary Stroutsos, I did a couple of things for him. He’s a flute player and he was going to do an arrangement of within without you, which is the song George Harrison wrote on the Sgt. Pepperalbum. So he played me his idea and I said: “Gary, you need some help arranging this”. So I jumped in and helped him put this thing together and he put out an album called, Within you and without you. It was mostly a meditation album with that one piece as the title. In the process of doing that, I thought this was a great idea. I thought maybe I’ll do my own take because I’m such a huge Beatles fan and they were so influential in my own writing. Just about every song I ever write, I can point out maybe a decision I make creatively or melodically that I gleaned from spending so much time studying, I mean I didn’t know I was studying, but absorbing all that music. I was at the perfect age and not quite 14 when The Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan show. I lived my whole teenage years through their eyes, record to record and all the single releases. So it was really a part of my style of composing, even though people might listen to my music and not think that because I’m not singing “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”. So I thought that it would be a really fun idea and I started in and picking out songs. The whole idea was to make them my own. What’s been really satisfying is that a large number of people have really liked that record; you know I was kind of doubtful but many of them liked my arrangements better! I was reclaiming my lost youth (Laughs).
LBFH: from a listeners perspective, it’s always interesting to hear an artist’s interpretation of other well known popular music. We spoke with George Winston who spoke very similarly about the Doors and how they were a huge influence on his music. I guess it’s the need to go back to the roots
LBFH: You do workshops and coaching sessions. This is a great idea. What do you feel is the most satisfying aspect of working with artists in this way?
Well, just to tie that into the Beatles, part of why I did these records was to show where I came from. I get a lot of young composers at these workshops and I coach kids that are just getting into their own music and I think it’s important for young people to understand where the music comes from. I mean, most of the people in the piano world are forced to play the dead guys (laughs), and they learn all that material. If your attention span can span the attention, then you can hang with Beethoven and get into what he was doing. But it’s kind of tough for musicians to keep absorbing like that. But if you study the music of the Beatles, it’s easier to understand where it came from. I may point out to them that, well OK you like my music, but this is where it came from. It came from studying these kinds of pop forms. I’ve had quite a few people at these workshops. A lot of them are hobbyists, you know and they’re not out to become serious musicians but they have a love for the piano and a love for playing and they want to learn about improvisation. Most of these people have never written a song in their life but after a workshop they can.. I try to demystify the process for them. I mean, of course it can be very complex, but also if you just know 2 or 3 chords, you can write a song. Its very satisfying when you see the look on people’s faces when they are able to put a few chords together and they go “really? It’s that simple? It’s kind of like passing the torch. I spent my whole life trying to write music by listening and digesting the music of musicians that I love. These people come and they like what I do and I try to open up my songs to them. I say, look, this pattern here it happens again and again here and if you learn these three patterns you can play this whole song! It isn’t just notes on a page all of a sudden, its patterns that they can recognize. It’s the same with chord progressions. I try to point out the different patterns found in music and then help them construct melodies. So yeah, I kind of break it down to the basic elements. There’s one person who has become a friend of mine and he’s actually putting out his first CD after coming to my workshops. It’s a lot of fun to watch that process.
LBFH: Sometimes ideas come easily and sometimes not. Where does the music come from within you and how do you see it? Do you see images, Colors, patterns? Or is it an emotional process?
DL: It’s not very visual for me, maybe in the sense that I can look at the keyboard and see patterns. Sometimes I’ll sit down and actually just try to play little shapes, if that makes sense. Chords make shapes especially If they’re not typical triads, like maybe a major 7th or 9th, or a raised 9 or a flat 5. Maybe a major 7 or a 9 or raised 9 or a flat 5, something that gives it a little extra dissonance. I might start with a little shape like that, but a lot of times it’s like doodling for me, I’ll sit down and I’ll just start playing a chord progression. I’ll start playing in a key. What will happen is I’ll just start playing a little melody that I like and then I just build from there. Occasionally I am inspired. There are two ways to look at it, the more you do it the better you become from a craft point of view. I’ve written thousands of songs, so that’s kind of easy for me because I know how to craft a song. It might not be the most memorable piece in the world but I know how to create an intro, a verse and a bridge and make a chorus and modulate and do all the things you can do within the song form. But in the last year for example, I’ve done an album called Movements of the Heart, it has been just an amazing experience being caught up in all these emotions and all of these feelings. Some of the music just came out of me practically formed; I’m guessing that part of it is because I’ve done the preparation. I’ve done the work by learning how to write a song and to play the piano and how to express myself. The other thing I worked on a lot, is my touch. A lot of people try to play my songs and they can play the notes but it’s really the touch that’s adds the emotional aspect to the music. That’s why you can have 10 different people play the piano and each one will have their own style, their own touch and their own way of expressing themselves on that keyboard. So I would say for me the of my composition process. The best stuff I write is where I’m in a really strong emotional state or I’ve been inspired by something else. For example, when I wrote Cristofori’s Dream, I had read about this man that invented the piano and was struck that I had never stopped to think about who invented this instrument! Then I was filled with gratitude for this person and I wondered what the world would be like if he had never got the idea to change the harpsichord and to create this expressive instrument that could sustain notes so that it wasn’t just monophonic. so that was kind of a song of a lifetime for me and I felt that I was destined to write it. I guess its craft, its focus, its emotion; it’s a feeling, expression and touch. When I’m in bed sleeping or just laying in bed, if I’m working on a piece, it’s always kind of in there just bubbling. So often times, if I don’t have a bridge to a piece, when I wake up in the morning ill go to the piano and boom, there it is. So I think a lot of it is that I’ve spent so much time in that imaginary part of my mind, that it becomes fairly easy for me.
LBFH: When you practice and lay ideas down, do you utilize portable technology to snap shot your work?
DL: Yeah, the last couple of years I had a digital recorder and I kept it by the piano and that was really cool. But now I have this Ipad (laughs) with a little recording program in it that is so simple and handy to just turn on and record what your doing. Then from there you can turn it into an mp3 and email it to someone to say, hey what do you think of this idea? I don’t really use a computer for my day to day work but I do have a Protools set up where I can work on several albums and record my piano parts at home and then take them into other studios and put them on their hard drives. That piece of the puzzle has been made pretty easy.
LBFH: What are you up to now, David what new projects are you promoting?
I recently released an album called Movements of the heart and it got named best solo piano album 2013 through a publication calledsolopiano.com. Almost everything I put out these days is done with a companion book through Hal Leonard, so that’s been really cool to be able to have the recording and the book that goes with it. Currently, I’m engaged to Kristin Amarie who is a fabulous singer and who just released her first album Notes From a Journey. It was rated number 2 on the zone music chart, that’s a really big new age chart. We’re currently in the studio and we’ve co-written an album of primarily original contemporary Christmas music. That may sound kind of strange. So, we’ve got this romantic Christmas album called Forever Christmas. We’re doing a few
traditional pieces and some adult contemporary pop songs but in a nice mellow format almost like Norah Jones style, not too heavily produced with piano, upright, cello and maybe some woodwinds. We’re working on a true collaboration. I’m mostly writing the music lyrics. I was a singer/songwriter for so many years, I put that aside you know. People just think I’m this new age piano player. I also play the drums (laughs), I do a lot of different things. So I’m working on those projects and touring. We’re on our way to Mexico City at the end of the month. And, it looks like we might be moving to Europe as well. So there are a lot of other things also going on in my life. It’s kind of a crazy life, but I love it. It’s very exciting. Life is very interesting now that Kristin and I have gotten together. She’s originally from Norway so she’s European and she would love to be back in Europe at least part of the time. So we’re going to try to figure out a way to spend some time in Europe and some time here. I still keep a schedule of touring and workshops here so were not moving anywhere permanently, just trying to figure out where to tie up our boats (laughs)
LBFH: Your website DavidLanz.com is very well laid out. It is very easy and enjoyable to browse.
DL: Thanks! It’s been a little bit of a challenge to keep it up, but our sites are very specific. They are a great place to go to listen to music and get loads of information.
LBFH: David, what words of wisdom could you share with readers who are looking for ways to get into this industry?
DL: I think it’s really an internal question. You have to ask yourself, what does the world need from me, what is my gift, what do I have to give? Who am I as an artist and what is my message? Each artist is like a reporter and if you’re a rap artist you’re reporting from the street, a new age artist and your reporting from an inner point of view. If you’re a song writer then you’re trying to dig into your emotions and your heart. What I tell young musicians is the best way to be in the music industry is to be unique and the best way to be unique is to be you! There’s only one of you. So that’s kind of it. Figure out who you are and what you have to say. There’s an old adage: you create the taste for which you’re savored. If you jump on the bandwagon because it’s cool, by the time you get there that wagon is gone and something else is now cool. Now all of a sudden you’re like yesterdays thing. You’ve got to believe in yourself. It’s tough, you know. It’s not always going to be something that’s easy and it’s not an easy road. Some of us are predestined to be huge stars, but most of us just have to kind of figure out what it is we have to say. You’ll find your audience and a number of people who will resonate with your message as long as the message your giving is from your heart and smacks of truth. If you’re phony, most people can tell, like if you just try to imitate someone else, unless your goal is to be a tribute band. If you’re really serious you’ve got to figure out who you are and for me that’s the best place to start.
LBFH: It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you, David and we wish you all the luck with your new album and your engagement!
DL: Same here thanks and take care!
Bookmark these great Links to David & Kristin’s websites:
About the interviewer:
Thomas Mangano is a composer and a performer living on Long Island, NY. He is the owner of a production services company that provides music, soundscapes and effects to professionals in film and media industries. He is also the founding member of the Boutcher/Mangano Jazz Trio and currently serves as the Music Director for the Custer Observatory.
To learn more about Thomas, Please visit hi website: Thomasmangano.com